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Good food is good for Europe

Translation of the article in Italian “Il cibo buono fa bene all’Europa” by Manlio Masucci, in Comune.info, 6 May 2019

A common agricultural policy that focuses on food quality, agroecology and the social rights of those who work can relaunch the EU in crisis. Olivier De Shutter, president of Ipes-Food, speaks to us.

A common agricultural policy could make a decisive contribution to the development of sustainable food systems and the relaunch of the EU’s integration project. An ambitious proposal, destined to face the numerous challenges that characterize the sector: from the low-cost junk food that floods our markets to the new generation of commercial treaties, from the widespread illegality to the exploitation of workers to the system of public subsidies that facilitate the large standardized mass production. We asked Olivier De Shutter, co-chairman of Ipes-Food, former UN Special Commissioner for the Right to Food and current member of the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, how to address these problems at a time when public confidence in the EU seems to be at an all-time low.

De Shutter, citizens are harassed by the economic crisis and often choose to save money by buying bad quality food at low cost. How to convince them that this is not the best solution? The solution is not just to tell people to eat healthier food. We need to make the health option easier for everyone, especially for low-income groups. This means using a range of tools – urban planning, tax incentives (e.g. taxes on sodas or zero VAT on fruits and vegetables) and public procurement – to build healthy food environments. We need an adequate social safety net. Cheap calories can no longer replace social policies, which need to be rebuilt and redesigned to address the root causes of poverty and promote access to healthy food for all. Europe is approving new trade treaties that open the door to waves of junk food and feed unsustainable production systems. What is your position? The EU’s business model promotes trade in goods at ever-increasing volumes, despite contradictions with health and sustainability objectives. For example, the FTA with Japan is based on increased export opportunities in the high-emission meat and dairy sectors. Simply put, the EU and its Member States must completely rethink this model.

The report supports the need to rebuild confidence in the EU. Could a new food policy be the vehicle for relaunching the proEuropean project? Food is a source of great concern for citizens. By acting in this area and responding to what citizens want – healthy, sustainable and locally produced food – the EU can assert its relevance and importance. The idea of a food policy is inherently more democratic than current sectoral policies. By shifting the focus from agriculture to food, a wider range of stakeholders can be significantly involved in policy design and evaluation. How can a new food policy benefit workers in the sector? In Italy there is the phenomenon of immigrants forced to work in the fields in conditions of similar slavery. How to deal with widespread illegality? The most powerful actors in the food sector are able to put pressure on wages and working conditions. The cost of this is borne by farm labourers, fast food personnel and delivery personnel. This is happening in the EU and around the world. A common food policy would address this problem on three fronts. First, as well as applying due diligence to food importers, it would accelerate the reforms already underway at European level to crack down on unfair trade practices and abuses of buyer power in supply chains. Secondly, it would oblige operators to disclose the true costs of food production, allowing negative impacts on workers’ welfare to be made visible.Third, a common food policy would refocus EU policies in support of the alternative food system and short supply chain initiatives to ensure fair revenues for farmers and food workers.

In Italy 15% of the cultivated area is organic but about 97% of public incentives go to conventional agriculture. We are also well above the European average for pesticide consumption. Could a common policy help to improve this situation? A common food policy would reduce dangerous pesticides and chemical exposures by using various policy instruments, with increasing ambition over time. Steps to enhance the environmental vocation of the CAP would be combined with measures needed to develop diversified, low-input agroecological systems through research, better soil monitoring and a crackdown on endocrine disrupters (EDCs) in food packaging. With more stringent regulations, and demonstrating the benefits of agroecological alternatives, the EU would no longer be held hostage by short-term solutions. Therefore, in the long term, the EU could gradually phase out the systematic use of harmful pesticides such as glyphosate.

Young Italians are looking with increasing interest at the land for job opportunities while farmers’ markets are growing even in large cities. How can a common food policy support this process? Building shorter and fairer supply chains is one of the five key objectives of a common food policy. Tools already exist to support direct sales and short supply chains (e.g. in rural development), but they are rarely adopted by Member States and poorly implemented. Under a common food policy, more funding would be allocated to these initiatives and to local structures to support them through, for example, local food policy councils and urban food policies. Member States would be obliged to develop coherent strategies to support short supply chains and territorial initiatives. EU support instruments would also be redefined to be more accessible to small farmers and local food initiatives.

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